History Lessons in Normandy

 
 

Herb Sparrow
Published November 07, 2017

“We did not choose resignation, but resistance, despite the risks.”

Colette Marin-Catherine, still feisty and defiant more than 72 years after the end of World War II, was speaking of her family’s activities in German-occupied northern France, when actions as benign as placing wreaths on the graves of resistance fighters “was strictly forbidden, punishable by death.”

“But then, everything but sneezing was prohibited. Ours was a tactic of annoyance, just like bees,” she said.

The 88-year-old captivatingly spoke for more than an hour before dinner on a recent tour called “D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy and Liberation of France” that my wife, Marcheta, and I took with the National World War II Museum.

Marin-Catherine, proudly wearing medals and pins denoting her part as a teenager in the French resistance and in aiding wounded Allied soldiers, put a personal face on the Allied effort to defeat Nazi Germany that began with the landings on Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans uses firsthand accounts from people such as Marin-Catherine, along with visits to the sites involved in the massive invasion and subsequent three-month battle of Normandy to present a vivid, emotional and educational tour.

“It was a truly authentic, visceral experience that brought it to life,” said Marcheta Sparrow, whose father was wounded in the effort to break out of Normandy and liberate France. “It was very emotional.”

“I had heard what the infantry had experienced, and I wanted to see it,” said 92-year-old Harvey Pearson, who was a young waist gunner in a B-17 flying out of Italy during the war. “I could never get the ones I knew to talk about it. I had to come over here and see with my eyes.

“I was so impressed with what those troops went through. I understand it so much more,” said Pearson, who was accompanied by nine members of his family. “Everybody needs to see it.”

Battleground Introduction

Our tour had begun three days earlier as we gathered at the airport in Paris and took a motorcoach to Bayeux, our home for the next five nights. During the ride, our guide, Pierre Natanson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the invasion, gave us an overview.

“D-Day was the largest combined operation ever attempted,” he said. “It was extremely complex.”

The first stop the next day was appropriately at the Pegasus Bridge over the Orne River, where the first shots of the invasion were fired by British troops flown in by gliders to capture two key bridges.

We walked across the current bridge and saw stone monuments that marked the spot where three gliders, led by Maj. John Howard of the Ox and Bloods, landed within 130 feet of the bridge.

The original bridge is across the road at the Pegasus Museum. “This is the real thing; it is not a copy,” said curator Mark Worthington. “There were only two bridges between the city of Caen and the coast. Both were captured within 10 minutes.

“If you take out the signs and cars, everything looks as it did then.”

Our next stop, a large five-story concrete German bunker at Ouistreham, was part of the Atlantic Wall that Hitler erected to protect against an invasion.

“It was not actually a wall,” said Natanson. “It was a series of strong points consisting of radar stations, defensive nests and coastal gun batteries. Le Grand Bunker is a unique example of the remains of the Atlantic Wall. There was only one bunker like this.”

The huge bunker’s rooms are filled with artifacts and mannequins that give a sense of what it was like for the German soldiers who manned the bunker.

Our first day concentrated on the three beaches — Gold, Juno and Sword — where British and Canadian troops landed. During a lunch stop at the village of Arromanches, we got a fascinating look at the remains of the innovative artificial Mulberry harbor at Gold Beach that played a key role in supplying Allied troops.

In the afternoon, we visited a German gun battery at Longues-Sur-Mer, the only battery along the coast with its original guns, which gave a good feel for the firepower the invading Allied troops faced.

Serendipitous Events

The next morning at the Chateau Bernaville, owners Dorothy and Simon Bernaville discussed pivotal events that happened around the chateau early on the morning of D-Day, when a small contingent of American paratroopers accidentally encountered and killed German Gen. Wilhelm Falley before the landings.

Falley was on his way to his communications center, which was hidden in trees behind the chateau. Many historians believe that if he had reached the center to direct his troops, it would have had a major impact on the American landing at Utah Beach.

“It was an extraordinary story of luck and paratroopers who know what to do. They were highly trained and attuned to their task,” said Dorothy Bernaville.

We drove down narrow rural lanes past the infamous hedgerows that were an initial bloody and deadly obstacle for the Allies to La Fiere, a small but strategic bridge the 82nd Airborne captured and defended during numerous German counterattacks.

A herd of cows grazing in a nearby verdant field was in stark contrast to the chaos, death and brutality that took place there 73 years before.

At Ste-Mère-Église, an important crossroad town, we stopped in the town square where some American paratroopers inadvertently landed early in the morning in the middle of German troops that were watching townspeople fight a house fire.

A model of a paratrooper with his chute caught on the roof, who was made famous in the movie “The Longest Day,” hangs from the church on the square.

“The town, as you see it, hasn’t changed. Most of the buildings were there,” said Natanson.

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